Late May and a break in my busy schedule had me scrambling for a quick excursion to the final two mountains in the Daiko range. By setting up base camp at Myojin-daira, I hoped to knock off both Myojin and Hinokizuka in one fell swoop. I needed some wingmen, however, so I turned to Paul M. and Josh, my two companions from Mt. Tsubone, which sits just across the valley from my target peaks.
Our meeting point was Haibara station, where we loaded the gear into the back of Josh’s kei car and picked up provisions at the local supermarket. The drive out to Higashi Yoshino village was slow yet pleasant, following the meandering Hōno river until it converged with the Takami river and up a secluded valley towards the rustic hamlet. Higashi Yoshino is best known for the last officially recorded sighting of the Japanese wolf, which wandered into the village back in 1905 for a one-way ticket to the taxidermist. There have been several reported sightings in the decades since, but with the massive post-war clear cutting of the broadleaf forests, it is unlikely that the Canis lupis could have survived such habitat destruction into modern times.
Just before the village office, the route abandoned the river and forked left, past a quiet hot spring and campground and towards the trailhead of Omata, which lies at the terminus of a concrete logging road. We squeezed in among the dozens of other vehicles lining the shoulder at the locked gate over the road and shuffled through gear. Josh and Paul sifted through their sleeping gear while I stuffed excess provisions into gaps in my already overloaded pack. In order to shed weight, I opted to just bring the rain fly of my tent and supplement it with a bug net to keep the mosquitos at bay. Shortly after 11am, we shouldered the packs under the azure sky and marched onwards.
The initial part of the track follows the potholed forest road all the way up the river valley as it terminates at one of those ubiquitous concrete dams lining just about every single mountain stream in this hydro-rich country. A rat snake sunned itself on the warm pavement as a series of narrower dirt tracks fanned out from the main road. A healthy army of cedar trees lined both sides of the river bank, making us wonder as to what the highlands had in store for us.
We crossed a metal bridge spanning the river and left the forest road behind. The track hugged the eastern bank of the river as vistas opened up intermittently behind us to the south. The upper reaches of adjacent ridges glistened with fresh deciduous greenery – perhaps there are still areas of pristine beauty trapped up there.
A series of four river crossings pushed us higher up the constricted gorge and spit us out at the base of the 50-meter high Myojin falls. We pushed up a series of switchbacks until reaching a turn in the trail that provided a vista of the multi-tiered waterfall. We rested here, admiring the power of nature while filling our bellies with calories for the impending climb. A few switchbacks later, past the top of the falls, the planted cedars suddenly gave way to a brilliant and hearty beech forest swaying gently in the early summer breezes. My spirits rose, providing an extra boost in my gait as I tried to imagine the scene of just 150 years ago, when the wolves still called this place home.
The water source was reached after a solid twenty minute push. The map indicated a water source much closer to our intended campsite, so we pushed on without weighing down our packs further. In less than 10 minutes, we popped out of the forest and into a vast, green flatlands bursting with plantlife. We dropped off the kit and ventured over to an open-air shelter to have a proper lunch and to consider our options for pitching the tent. Just above our lunch shelter, a rustic log cabin hut sat peacefully on the hillside, looking like it was dropped here from a ski hamlet in Colorado.
Below us, on the flattest part of the plain, an older, well-seasoned tin-roofed shack stood guard as a reminder of Myojin Daira’s not-too-distant past. During the ski boom of the 60s, ski lifts were constructed here, and the building is the remnants of the old ski lodge that once catered to the budding ski enthusiasts. Nearby, parts of the original ski lifts still stand tall, covered by a thick layer of rust and overgrown weeds. An on-line search about the history of the ski fields came up empty, so perhaps it was not a very popular place. I am sure the locals in Omata village would have more first-hand knowledge about the area, but judging by the amount of garbage strewn about the forest behind the lifts, it must have been a popular place in its heyday.
Josh and I went off in search of the water source, but came back empty-handed, as the stream was barely more than a trickle. We managed to get enough water to hold us off on our afternoon hike, but knew we’d need to backtrack down to that first water source later in order to see ourselves through the evening. We set up camp in a flat area closest to the path back down to the water and stashed our gear inside. Despite the plethora of vehicles in the parking lot, there were no other overnight guests to be seen, as the low-pressure system due to move in that evening had kept other campers at bay.
Clouds drifted high above the surrounding peaks as we pushed on to the top of the old ski run until reaching the ridge, where the contours led us to the summit of Mt. Myojin, my 95th peak. There were no views to speak of on the narrow, tree-smothered knob along the ridge. If we kept going for another couple of hours, we would reach the summit of Mt. Ikegoya, a mountain I had reached just two weeks prior.
We veered west, dropping off the ridge and into a vast deciduous forest that would lead us to the summit of Hinokizuka, my second peak of the day. It would be a two-hour round-trip journey, but with plenty of daylight left and our home for the evening already in place, we cruised along the pristine ridge joyfully, catching up on recent news and pondering the future. At one point along the trail, we all heard the strange clicking sound coming from what we presumed was some kind of insect. I continued on, hearing a yelp from behind me as Paul jumped back in horror. His right foot was just inches from tramping directly on the body of a pit viper, who was curled up in the attack position. Apparently my footfall had angered the beast, who shook its tail in disgust. Though they do not have rattles to speak of, the poisonous snakes can still shake their tails when agitated, as seen in this remarkable video.
The snake sat frozen, head cocked in striking position, while the three of us looked on in disbelief. Had Paul’s reflexes been just a few seconds slower, then we would be dealing with an airlift to the nearest hospital. The close call had kicked the adrenal glands into overdrive, giving us a jolt of energy. We cruised past a group of four ultralight campers passing around a bottle of wine and shared our enthralling encounter with them. At the summit of Hinokizuka oku-mine, we took in the vistas and thanked our lucky stars for avoiding a catastrophe. I broke out the smoked pistachios, which went well with the granola and chocolate bars I had stuffed in my day pack. It was mountain #96, and there was no other place I would rather be.
Our vantage point revealed dark clouds billowing up on the horizon. The breeze had intensified into a light gale, and my barometer reading indicated that we would likely be on the receiving end of the bad weather before dawn. We raced over to the summit of Hinokizuka, the twin sister of the mountain before retracing our (careful) steps back to camp.
What greeted us upon arrival astonished us, for a group of a dozen university students had set up their sprawling camp directly beside us. The meadow easily has room for at least 50 tents, so why on earth would someone pitch their tent so close? This is definitely a ‘safety in numbers’ mentality that a lot of Japanese people just can’t seem to shake, for the majority of hikers in this country go to the mountains in order to be with people rather than escape from them.
Paul got the fire started while Josh and I dropped back down to the first water source to fill up on supplies. On our way we crossed paths with a trail runner who had also dropped by for a drink. Back at the open-air shelter next to our campsite, I chatted with the runner, wondering where he was headed at such a late hour. “I’ve just come from Odai-ga-hara”, explained the madman, “I started at 4am and have run all the way here, over 50 kilometers. From here, I’ll keep running to Mt. Takami, where I will pick up my bicycle and ride all the way back to Odai-ga-hara to pick up my car.” I sat there with my jaw hung low, wondering what possesses such people to push the boundaries of endurance. “Oh, I’m training for a 100km race”, came the reply. And here I am, thinking that climbing 100 mountains in Kansai was something special.
The rain held off until we had finished our campfire stories, and shortly before midnight we drifted off to sleep, only to be woken just two hours later by the university group literally camping on our doorstep . They spend the next four hours, in heavy rain no doubt, breaking down camp and preparing their morning meal in the loudest voices possible. Some things I will never ever comprehend, no matter how long I live in this land of no whispers.
Once they left at 6am, we drifted back to sleep for an hour before the limitations of our shelters became appallingly apparent. My sleeping pad was sitting in the middle of a small lake that had leeched under my rain tarp sometime during the night. Josh and Paul, in the meantime, were being hypnotized by the Chinese water torture dripping down from their tent roof. Everything was a soggy mess, but we could do nothing other than let out a collective sigh.
I unzipped my shelter, squinting through some of the thickest fog I had ever laid my eyes on just to catch a glimpse of my companion’s tent. Squirming out like a caterpillar emerging from a sticky cocoon, I grabbed the cooking gear and stumbled up to the shelter to start boiling water for coffee and oatmeal. Josh and Paul soon joined me in bleary-eyed disbelief, as we continually cursed our unwelcome guests from the previous evening. The caffeine and fibre set my bowels in motion, as I ducked into the forest to scout out a place to make my deposit. I dug a hole with my trekking pole and relieved myself, cleansing as best I could in order to keep the remaining toilet paper from getting submerged in the damp murk. I returned to the shelter, packing up the cooking gear as we started the painstaking task of breaking down camp. I felt a gaseous build-up and bent over to relieve the pressure by flatulating, with some unwelcome results.
“Shit”, I screamed, as the fecal matter exploded, soiling my undergarments and hiking pants. I dropped everything, rushing back over to where I had previous unloaded and dug yet another hole and tried to cleanse everything with damp leaf litter, but it was utterly hopeless. I sulked back into camp with my tail between my legs. By sheer luck, I had packed some rain pants in case of inclement weather and changed into them. Nylon isn’t the best hiking material, but I suppose it’s better than riding bareback through the forest.
Josh and Paul nearly wet themselves when hearing of my predicament, but nothing compared to how an elderly solo hiker reacted. He had just climbed up from the trailhead below, the first hiker of the new day, as he listened intently to my story. I guess my delivery in Japanese was spot on, thanks to my training on the streets of Osaka, for the gray-haired man burst out into uncontrollable laughter, a literal ROFL, if you will. In all my years I had never seen any Japanese person laugh so hard and with such unrestrained panache.
Our original plan was to set off on a morning ascent of Mt. Azami, a two-hour return hike of one of the 100 mountains of Kinki, but considering the weather and my unpredictable bowels, we voted in favor of just returning back down to the car. We took our time, admiring the serenity and ethereal beauty of the thick forests smothered in thicker fog.
Despite the success of the two-for-one mission, it was overall a pretty shitty trip, pun intended. We knew, however, that a rematch with Mt. Azami the following summer would leave us with a better taste in our mouths.